EE has this morning announced trials of two new services to improve voice connectivity for its customers, including the introduction of Wi-Fi calling and voice over 4G (VoLTE).
Wi-Fi calling brings great benefits
Earlier this week, Three began trials with selected users on its new inTouch Wi-Fi calling service, allowing the making and receiving of calls (as well as SMS) over any Wi-Fi connection. Three’s service is due to launch in August.
Now EE is also going to carry out trials of what is likely to be a very similar, if not identical, service.
Wi-Fi calling might appear quite familiar to some Orange users that had access to its ‘Signal Boost’ service a while ago using UMA (Unlicensed Mobile Access). Unfortunately, the service, that worked extremely well it has to be said, was limited to just a small number of handsets, and has quietly disappeared..
The benefit of using a Wi-Fi network is obvious, as it enables users to have coverage in places where it might never be possible to get a mobile signal. That might be in the middle of a large building or home, or in a basement, as well as buildings of certain constructions that act like virtual faraday cages.
Some cynics have commented before that things like Wi-Fi calling or the provision of femtocells for the home is just a cheap (and lazy) way to fill in coverage blackspots, but as part of the £275 million investment EE has announced, the company intends to make sure the service for voice is improved on its core network too.
For example, EE will enhance its MyEE app to identify when a phone is in a no service area, and tell the network the location. In addition to monitoring these areas, EE has what it calls ‘Platinum Project’, where it will seek to configure a network with ‘zero defects’ so users will be able to travel with seamless, uninterrupted, coverage.
Trial areas so far include the M25 motorway, Canary Wharf, and the South Bank of London.
VoLTE will make 4G great
When 4G launched, there was one rather major downside. It’s a data only network, and that rules out carrying voice calls in the traditional circuit-switched manner.
Not that this stopped 4G networks launching, but it does mean 4G can’t reach its full potential until sorted out. You see there’s a price to pay for the lack of voice on 4G, namely the need to have a fallback to 3G, or 2G, to carry it instead.
Falling back to 2G or 3G might not sound like a problem, until you consider the different characteristics of the varying frequencies of the 2G, 3G, and 4G services in operation. Some carry further than others, and penetrate buildings and built up areas better than others, making it hard to ensure you can’t have one without the other.
The solution so far has been to restrict 4G coverage to ensure it falls within the existing coverage of either 2G or 3G. In the case of Three, operating its 3G network at 2100MHz, that means 4G at 1800MHz (and the 800MHz spectrum it now has) can potentially extend beyond where it has 3G – and that’s a no go.
In fact, 800MHz poses a huge problem for operators like Three, which can be used to provide very good coverage in rural areas for 4G – but only if there’s already service there capable of carrying voice.
But even for EE, O2, and Vodafone, it’s still a problem and explains why your 4G signal can sometimes appear lower, even when relatively near to a site that offers a very good signal on 2G or 3G.
The solution to all of these problems is called VoLTE (Voice over LTE, or 4G) and it recently launched in the USA on T-Mobile. It should really have launched in many more places by now too, but there have been a range of issues that have delayed its introduction.
EE is therefore starting VoLTE trials of its own, with an aim to launch commercial operation in 2015. The news today also confirms EE is now going to start working with the 800MHz spectrum it has, and conducting trials in rural Oxfordshire to make sure it can get VoLTE to work properly.
Once VoLTE launches, it will also be possible for users wanting the fastest data speeds at all time to lock their handset to 4G only and not lose voice connectivity. It’s for this reason that handsets today do not let you choose 4G-only unless you select via hidden service menus.
But the real benefit will be in those hard to reach areas of the UK where people currently lack any decent mobile service, and where the introduction of 4G will be a massive step forward. It will also be vital for the operators to reach their targets of population and geographic coverage in the coming years.
Another benefit further down the line will be the ability to ‘re-farm’ existing 2G and 3G spectrum to provide more capacity for 4G.
I’ll be keeping an eye on EE’s development in the coming months, as well as checking on what the other networks are doing to introduce VoLTE.
EE ANNOUNCING LIVE TRIALS OF PHONE CALLS OVER WIFI AND 4G AS PART OF £275 MILLION INVESTMENT IN VOICE
· New capability to allow customers to make high quality calls in more places, when only connected by WiFi in homes and offices, set for launch in autumn 2014
· The VoLTE, 4G calling, trial will expand network coverage in rural areas using low frequency spectrum for the first time
· Ongoing £275 million investment this year in phone calls aims to remove ‘whitespots’, and create ‘zero defect’ experience in UK’s busiest areas
· More than 6,000 2G sites upgraded, and capacity increased on 2,000 3G sites to support more than 900m calls being made every week
20th June 2014 – EE is continuing its investment in making phone calls better for customers across the UK by introducing a WiFi calling capability. The carrier grade service will allow people to make calls, with a higher quality and greater degree of reliability than unmanaged VoIP services, from their home, office, corporate or public WiFi connection. Calls can be made through the phone’s native dialler, with no need to rely on an app. Native SMS services are also available through the WiFi capability.
The WiFi calling service is set to launch in autumn 2014 on the latest handsets capable of supporting the service.
Fotis Karonis, CTO at EE, said:
“Our WiFi calling capability will let customers make calls where they have access to WiFi but not to the mobile network. The customer experience is seamless because it’s the same as making a network call and uses the normal call interface of the handset. This is a major part of our strategy to invest in giving customers the ability to make a call wherever they are, and we’re confident that this service can make a big difference to people in homes and large offices across the country, especially in the most rural areas, that don’t have mobile coverage.”
In recent demonstrations at the EE Test Lab, the company has also been showing live 4G call services (VoLTE), and will begin a trial later in 2014 using the 800MHz spectrum acquired in last year’s auction. The trial will expand data and voice coverage, bringing service to a previously unconnected part of rural Oxfordshire. 800MHz spectrum has a significantly greater reach than 1800MHz spectrum so can be used by EE to significantly increase the geographical coverage of its data and voice network.
A full commercial launch of the capability will follow in 2015, when the technology has had chance to mature so that the highest level of quality can be achieved, and the EE 4G network exceeds 90% population coverage – essential to a viable 4G voice service.
Karonis adds: “4G calling, or VoLTE, is an exciting technology that we’re going to be trialling in the coming months using our low frequency spectrum, bringing one of the world’s best voice and data services to a part of rural Britain that has previously been unconnected. When we have rigorously tested the performance of 4G calling and made sure that it matches our 2G and 3G quality, we’ll launch it nationwide on our 4G network.”
HD Voice, a benefit of VoLTE, is widely available already on the EE network, with 3G coverage at greater than 98% and more than 5 million HD Voice-capable devices in use.
With the EE network now carrying more than 900million calls each week, existing voice infrastructure is being upgraded on a week by week basis. More than 6,000 2G masts have had entirely new equipment installed in the last 18 months, and over 2,000 3G masts have had capacity doubled.
As a further part of this investment in phone calls – £275 million in 2013, and a further £275 million in 2014 – EE has also introduced three key initiatives to improve phone calls for its 26 million customers:
· The capability of the MyEE App to identify when a device hits a whitespot, or ‘no service’ area, and ping the network to give its location. This enables the EE network teams to identify the exact spots where customers are not able to make calls, even in areas where coverage is generally good. The MyEE App is currently being used on more than half a million handsets
· The nationwide ambition to halve the dropped call rate (DCR) in 2014, creating a world-leading call experience for customers. A rate of 0.4%, across both 2G and 3G, has already been consistently achieved in Derby, where the integration and optimisation of the EE network is at its most advanced stage
· The ‘Platinum Project’, which aims to create a ‘zero defect’ phone call experience for customers in the busiest parts of the UK, giving the best possible quality of voice. Trial areas for the project include the entirety of the M25 Orbital, Canary Wharf and The Southbank. EE network teams are walking and driving thousands of miles in these areas to identify any areas that need enhancing, and reconfiguring local masts to ensure the best possible service
For more information, please visit ee.co.uk.